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Notre Dame commemorates MLK, racial justice with Walk the Walk Week

On July 21, 1964, political peacemaker and then-University president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh joined hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. after an impromptu address to crowds at a civil rights rally in Chicago. 

Hesburgh and King, standing side-by-side and hand-in-hand, sang “We shall overcome,” originally a gospel song that had since been adopted as an anthem for the civil rights movement. 

This moment, memorialized in a photograph, has long defined the tradition of social justice at the University of Notre Dame. 

To continue this history and foster the culture of a socially-conscious campus community, the president’s oversight committee on diversity and inclusion announced the creation of Walk the Walk Week (WTWW) in November of 2015. The first observance of the week was held Jan. 18-22, 2016 and featured events like a celebration luncheon, a lecture from the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement and film screenings of “Selma” and “Boycott,” among others. 

This year marked only the second campus-wide observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal holiday. As such, WTWW will be celebrated from Thursday, Jan. 19 to Friday, Jan. 27. 

The president’s office is responsible for organizing the keynote events each year. This week’s keynote address will be delivered by Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and the Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2012 to 2014. 

Trethewey, currently serving as an Artist in Residence at the Notre Dame Institute on Race and Resilience, will deliver her speech, “Why I Write,” at 5 p.m. on Thursday in 215/216 McKenna Hall. Following Trethewey’s address, WTWW’s annual service project and prayer service will occur over the weekend. 

The WTWW service project this year aims to “address the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity in the greater South Bend area,” according to the website. The project will collect, organize and distribute necessary supplies, such as toiletries, to those in need. Items will be collected until Saturday, Jan. 21, at which point collections will be sorted, packaged and given to local organizations. 

On Sunday at 6:30 p.m., the annual prayer service will be given by the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop and primate, the Most Rev. Michael Curry. Curry received international attention in 2018 for his viral sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He will lead the campus community in reflecting on Dr. King’s legacy and praying for the end of injustice and inequality. After the address, participants will be welcomed to take part in a candlelight march and reception in the Main Building Rotunda. 

While these three keynote events kick off the week, there are many more events to follow.

Notre Dame student government is one of the groups co-sponsoring events to come later on in WTWW. Senior and student body president Patrick Lee expressed his enthusiasm about the programming.

“Student government is excited to be a part of WTWW’s events that highlight all of our University’s strength and diversity,” he said. “It’s our privilege to work with the president’s office and our cultural clubs, and it’s our hope that all our events promote a healthier, stronger community for the Notre Dame of the future.”

Leading the organizing from student government is Eliza Smith, director of diversity and inclusion — race and ethnicity. Smith expressed her personal connection to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy on campus.

“For me personally, this week means a lot to me. I was the [student] senator to write the resolution requesting a full-day observance for MLK Day, two years ago,” she said. “[The Njomo-Bisner administration and I] created the MLK coalition and we got that fully passed through all the necessary channels for the full observance. So now, I’m working on WTWW, which just feels like a continuation of the groundwork we laid down.”

Smith specifically addressed how honored she feels that student government and student opinions are being included and “sought out” for WTWW events and other decisions. She said she worked closely with Heather Asiala, program director for strategic initiatives, and and Hannah Heinzekehr, program director for strategic communication, to advise the president’s office on how to communicate effectively to students. 

Smith also emphasized how King’s legacy is tied into the entire week of events. 

“WTWW is a series of programming centered around Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, his legacy of providing equality for every person, providing service and helping out your fellow neighbor no matter how they identify,” she explained. “[My team and the University] provide programming spanning from educational events to celebrating events to recognition to everything under that umbrella, to really just highlight different aspects of his mission and his legacy.”

While working with Asiala and Heinzekehr to streamline the WTWW website and other marketing channels, Smith and her department are also co-sponsoring three WTWW events: a panel on the school-to-prison pipeline, a Black@ND live podcast recording on Black excellence and a dinner celebrating Black excellence, the latter of which includes an address from Derrick Johnson, the CEO and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Smith noted how grateful she was for student government executive leadership in their efforts to build a collaborative relationship with the president’s office that led to her involvement in WTWW.

“Patrick, Sophie and Nicole have been exceptional. To have this new relationship with the president’s office really opens the doors for future admins to continue that relationship and collaborative efforts, so that we can see more events and programming that are with student input and that are highlighted and exciting in the community,” she said. 

The president’s office, Smith said, has encouraged the campus community to think about the future by using the phrase, “What’s your next step?” in this year’s marketing materials. 

“Being able to appreciate and acknowledge the work that has been done and appreciate the workers and the people who have gotten us here,” she said. “But also looking forward to what you as a person can do, I think, is incredibly impactful.”

When WTWW concludes, Smith said her team’s next steps are focused on effective programming for Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March. 

“[My department is] already working incredibly hard on Black History Month and Women’s History Month —finding ways to highlight those events, elevate Black organizations and multicultural clubs, because they have been so helpful in this process,” she explained. “We’re excited to provide support and assistance in any way possible that they need, so that we can continue this trend of supporting each other and keep the ball rolling on those kinds of initiatives.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Derrick Johnson’s name. The Observer regrets this error.

You can contact Bella Laufenberg at ilaufenb@nd.edu.

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